1. Haute Couture in Roman Catholic Imagination, 2018


Heavenly Bodies

 Fashion and The Catholic Imagination at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.  which ended in October 2018




Miracle in Manhattan 

The Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute has performed a miracle:  for a season the faithful and the faithless circulated together and with pleasure around its new exhibition.

The context is a large display of haute couture whose inspiration is Roman Catholicism.

The exhibition was at two locations: the Cloisters, which contains a collection of European religious art and architecture from the Middle Ages,

including four cloisters;

and in the Western Medieval and Byzantine galleries of the Met’s main building.


The exhibition contained work of three kinds:

haute couture

two works made by haute couturiers to adorn effigies of the Virgin Mary 

and a loan from the Vatican of pontifical regalia and crosses of the last 200 years.  These could not be photographed.



DSC03544 Ensemble, autumn/winter 1984/85; gold-painted feathers, metal, ivory silk taffeta.  Thierry Mugler, French born 1948. Loaned by the designer and the Fashion Museum Province of Antwerp




There were several.

The first was that the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York approved this exhibition without addressing the use of sacred symbols – its sacred symbols – to secular ends.  

The Vatican itself loaned papal paraphernalia to be displayed concurrently.


Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the Vatican’s president of the Pontifical Council for Culture is reported by American Vogue to have celebrated the opening of this exhibition thus ….“dress is central to any discussion about religion; it affirms religious allegiance and, by extension, it asserts religious differences.”


There were didactic labels throughout the exhibition explaining aspects of Roman Catholicism:  the cult of the Virgin, for example; or the prevalence of the colour blue for Mary’s clothing. 




DSC03561DSC03562DSC03564DSC04044Evening dress. autumn/winter 2017/18 haute couture; red silk taffeta.  Valentino S.p.A.  Loaned by the designer



The wall label, as an example for this red silk taffeta creation suggested that  it ‘recalls the great cape worn as choir dress by cardinals and bishops.’ 


A tenuous suggestion, to say the least.




DSC04684DSC04685DSC04688DSC04686Cardinal Bandinello Sauli, His Secretary and Two Geographers, and detail, oil on panel, 1516.  Sebastiano del Piombo, 1485-1547, Venetian.  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC


Neither the Cardinal’s statement nor this linking of haute couture creations to the beliefs and history of the Church addresses the critical question:

what happens to a sacred symbol if it is used in a secular setting?  To profane ends, even?

It was left to a small lay group of American Catholics  to object to what to them is a clear confusion between sacred and secular.

They organized a ‘Reparation Crusade’ in early June 2018 and held a demonstration in a Roman Catholic church opposite the Met.  





The Mourner, alabaster, c. 1417.  Pere Ollet, 1394, 1556, Catalan.  From the tomb of a king of Aragon near Barcelona.  Metropolitan Museum of Art


And I think the truth lies somewhere in what Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York said about his support for this exhibition:

“In the Catholic imagination, the true, the good and the beautiful are so personal, are so real, that they have a name:  Jesus Christ….In the Catholic imagination, the truth, goodness and beauty of God is reflected all over the place, even in fashion.  The world is shot through with His glory and His presence.  That’s why I’m here.  That’s why the Church is here.”

I read this to mean that the Church took the opportunity to be here upon invitation because the Church – in the West – is in steep decline in its authority and is, consequently, not often ‘here’ among the masses of us who filled the galleries of the Met.



HeavenlyBodies 207


Gilet, 2007, gilt metal, enamel, polychrome glass cabochons, clear and black faceted crystals, mother-of-pearl encrusted stones, black silk velvet. Chanel Metiers d’Art.  Loaned by Chanel Patrimoine Collection



Secondly, the press noted that the majority of the designers whose work is represented in this exhibition are or were gay.

An irony given the abysmal handling of this community in the world by this church continuing for ever.





 Evening tops, autumn/winter 1991-92; black silk georgette and charmeuse, embroidered polychrome crystals and gold silk and metal threads.  Gianni Versace, 1946-1997, Italian.  Loaned by Gianni Versace Archives


Third:  all the mannequins were white.  Lily-white, driven-snow white.  Deliciously politically incorrect but also a silly provocation, in my view. So silly.




Mask, autumn/winter 2016/17; black leather, silver metal chains and charms with black plastic beads.  A.F. Vandevorst, Belgian founded 1977.  Loaned by Jaysha Obispo



Fourth: women

Extraordinarily worked as is this haute couture, the workmanship of the pontifical robes exceeds them by far for workmanship. 

This is not to do with design because the design of papal clothing is coded and cannot be easily varied.

It has to do with the extent, complexity and skill of the embellishment, both figural and abstract, on the papal robes.  

These pontifical works were embroidered by women.

One example:  15 women took 16 years to embroider a suite of 12 vestments commissioned by an Austrian empress for Pius IX. 

Another dissonant irony in that no woman can wear these robes nor exercise the authority of the offices they represent. 2018.

While virtually all the haute couture was made, of course, for women.



Details of the back and one sleeve of a jacket by Donatella Versace for Gianni Versace, spring/summer 2018; black leather, green and gold beads, black and silver metal studs, polychrome crystals, bugle beads and seed beads.  Loaned by the designer.



This said, the faithful were approved


and the faithless needed nobody’s approval


to relish the dramatic pairing of the work of haute couturiers with the Met’s rich Western Medieval and Byzantine holdings. 







Pontifical regalia


The Vatican loaned more than 40 separate pieces ranging in date from the mid-18th century to the early 21st.  None could be photographed. 




Portrait of Pope Pius VII and Cardinal Caprara, c. 1805, oil on panel.  Jacques-Louis David, 1745-1825, French.  Philadelphia Art Museum.  The pope was forced to Paris in 1804 by Napoleon to preside over his coronation.  One of the many accommodations by the Church with the secular power.


Mitres, a papal gauntlet, liturgical slippers, pontifical stoles, dalmatics, mantles, chasubles, copes. And the red papal shoes made for Saint John Paul II.

There were also crosiers, papal tiaras, rings, and pectoral crosses.

These involved the use of precious metals, semi-precious stones and precious stones including diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, pearls and garnets. 

Dazzling in every sense of the word.




Cardinal Fernando Nino de Guavara (1541-1609), 1600-1604, oil on canvas.  El Greco (Domeincos Theotokopoulos), 1540/41-1614, Greek.  Metropolitan Musuem, NY

I don’t know why the piece of paper at his feet unless it is a reference to the fact that he was, for a brief time, Inquisitor General.






Statuary Vestments for the Virgin Mary



Statuary vestment for the Madonna Della Grazie, 2015, original design 1950; the Poor Benedictine Cassinesi Nuns of Lecce, founded 1133; blue silk jacquard and gold passementerie, embroidered Swarovski crystals and gold metal thread and beads, ivory silk faille, embroidered polychrome crystals, gold paillettes and metal studs.

Loaned by the Church of Our Lady of Graces, Palagianello



DSC04033DSC04034DSC04042DSC04041DSC04038DSC04043 DSC04025

Statuary vestment for the Virgin of El Rocio, c. 1985; gold silk brocade with white and pink silk satin, gold silk and metal Chantilly lace, gold metal with polychrome crystals and pearls.  Yves Saint Laurent, 1936-2008, French. Goossens, French founded 1950.

Loaned by the Chapelle Notre-Dame de Compassion, Paris




Haute Couture in Roman Catholic Inspiration



Gianni Versace was on a catwalk above our heads with dresses embellished with crosses


Evening dress, autumn/winter 1997-98; gold mesh and appliqued amber crystals.  Gianni Versace, 1946-1997, Italian.  Loaned by Gianni Versace Archives






Fragment of a floor mosaic with a personification of Ktisis, a figure personifying the act of generous donation; marble and glass, Byzantine, 500-550 ACE.  Metropolitan Museum of Art




Dolce and Gabbana  (Italian, founded 1985) were also walking over our heads on a separate catwalk in designs influenced by the Byzantine ethic. 


Polychrome printed silk jacquard, white silk jacquard, embroidered polychrome crystals, silver crystals, gold and bronze paillettes, gold and silver metal thread.










Evening Ensemble, autumn/winter 2000/2001;  white silk gros de tours, embroidered gold paillettes and bugle beads, gold, brown, orange and clear crystals, gold silk and metal thread and gold metal passementerie.  John Galliano (British, born Gibraltar 1960) for Dior.  Dior Heritage Collection, Paris, on loan.





Choral robes, 1964, 1990s;  white silk crepe.  Christobal Balenciaga, 1895-1972, Spanish.

Balenciaga designed this robe in 1945 for a Spanish choir of which several Balenciaga workers were members.  Loaned by the Balenciaga Archives.

Above is  a painted copy, exact and full-scale, made in 1936 of the mosaic Deesis made between 1261 and 1300 for the south wing of the Hagia Sophia.

  Jesus, become the Christ, flanked by his mother and St. John, is reading from the Book of Judgement.




DSC03521DSC03523Ensemble, spring/summer 2017; black wool-silk twill, yellow silk satin brocaded with red and gold silk and metal thread. Balenciaga, founded 1937.  Loaned by Balenciaga Foundation





‘Il Pretino’ dress, autumn/winter 1956/57; black wool crepe and red silk satin.  Sorelle Fontana, founded 1943.  Loaned by Fondazione Micol Fontana Historical Archive, Rom






 ‘Madonna’ wedding ensemble, autumn/winter 2005/06 haute couture; white silk tulle, embroidered white silk and metal thread.  John Galliano, British born 1946, for Dior.  Loaned by Dior Heritage Collection, Paris




A collection of evening dresses created in 2011 of various fabrics and embellishments by Rodarte, American.  Loaned by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art





‘Incertitude’ evening dress; white silk chiffon, appliqued gold leather, 1936.  House of Lanvin, Jean Lanvin, 1867-1946, French.  Loaned by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London




Dress, autumn/winter 1984/85; silver silk lame.  Thierry Mugler, French born 1948.  Loaned by the designer.




‘Angelo d’Oro’ dress, 1987; gold and rose gold silk lame, ivory silk taffeta.  Roberto Capucci, Italian born 1930.   Loaned by the Roberto Capucci Foundation.




‘Gold-Gotha’ ensemble, autumn/winter 1988/89 haute couture; black silk-wool gabardine, black silk chiffon, polychrome crystals, gold seed beads,  and gold and purple metallic synthetic leather.  Christian Lacroix, French born 1951.  Loaned by the designer.  Exhibtied at the Met’s main building





‘Madonna’ evening ensemble, autumn/winter 1984/85; ivory and pale blue dip-dyed silk chiffon with embroidered blue and clear faceted crystals.  Thierry Mugler, French born 1948.  Loaned by the designer.

  A model wearing this dress was lowered on dry ice from on high as a finale to the designer’s 10th anniversary collection.





Evening ensemble, spring/summer 1999 haute couture; black silk taffeta, white duchesse satin, white cotton lace, white silk organza, black leather. Givenchy: Alexander McQueen, 1969-2010, British.  Loaned by Givenchy





Ensemble. spring/summer 1994; ivory cotton tulle and silk satin, white cotton lace, silver metal, brown leather.  Jean Paul Gaultier, French born 1952

The museum says that this is an evocation of Jean of Arc despite the couturier’s signature corset, and numerous garters running up the mannequin’s right leg




HeavenlyBodies 094


There were several interpretations of the habits of Dominican nuns by various designers




Virgin and Child, limestone with traces of paint.  French probably Lorraine, 1300-1320. Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY



HeavenlyBodies 098HeavenlyBodies 103HeavenlyBodies 126 - Copy

Ensemble spring/summer 2014; black and white synthetic crepe and white cotton canvas.  Moschino, Italian.  Loaned by Moschino



Evening ensemble, autumn/winter 2015; black mink with white astrakhan intarsia, black wool flannel, black and white silk charmeuse, and black silk wool and white silk faille. Thom Browne, American born 1965.  Loaned by the designer. Rosary created by Sarah Jane Wilde.


crosses with one arm lopped off, described by the Museum as a ‘playful subversion’ of this icon.




Wedding ensemble, autumn/winter 1977/78 haute couture; ivory silk crepe, Chantilly lace, and organza, white cotton organdy, embroidered silver metal thread, pearls and paillettes.  Yves Saint Laurent, 1936-2008, French.  Loaned by Musee Yves Saint Laurent





‘Ex Voto’ evening ensemble, spring/summer 2007; grey silk mousseline, white silk metal lace, crocheted ? and silver silk and iridescent crystals, appliqued holograms and aluminium ex-votos.  Jean Paul Gaultier, French born 1952.  Loaned by the designer






Wedding ensemble autumn/winter 2009/2010 haute couture; ivory silk satin and tulle, ivory and gold silk metal lace, embroidered polychrome organdy flowers, iridescent paillettes, gold metal thread, and clear crystals and seed beads.  Christian Lacroix, French born 1951.  Loaned by the designer